Heir-apparent at TE

InsideTennessee is the only source you need for comprehensive and colorful coverage of Vol football. Sign in or sign up now for an insightful look at a key player.

When Tennessee hired Butch Jones last December, Brendan Downs worried that the tight end's role might be limited in the new head man's offense.

Those worries were short-lived. A little Internet research revealed that Jones' 2012 Cincinnati Bearcats relied heavily on 6-foot-6, 260-pound tight end Travis Kelce. All he did was lead the team in receptions (45), receiving yards (722) and receiving touchdowns (8). He also led in yards per catch (16.0) among players with at least five receptions.

Any lingering concerns Downs might have entertained were obliterated Dec. 27, when Kelce hauled in an 83-yard touchdown pass in the final minute of Cincinnati's 48-34 Belk Bowl defeat of Duke. Kelce also had a 78-yard grab during the regular season, giving him the Bearcats' two longest receptions of the year.

"That was certainly a little reassuring," Downs admitted following a recent spring practice.

"I've watched a lot of film on Cincinnati's offense. When I heard about the hire I looked at how Cincinnati used their tight ends because it's obviously going to affect the next two years of my life. I was really interested in that. Once I saw that, I thought, 'I'm really going to like that.'"

Naturally, the realization that Jones fancies two-tight end sets featuring multiple roles — on-line, split wide, H-back and even fullback -- was quite a relief for Downs.

"Yes, it was," he said. "He asks a lot out of his tight ends. We're all over the field. We've got to be even more locked in because we're doing all kinds of different stuff. We've got to have a really good grasp of the offense."

After two years as a little-used backup to first-teamer Mychal Rivera, Downs has the inside track to be the starting tight end in 2013.

"It really is totally different," he said. "It's taking a little adjusting from me but I realize what I've got to do to make that happen, and I'm really focused on that right now."

What he must do to "make that happen" is pretty basic.

"I've got to just keep coming to work every day," he said, "and put in more than I ever have before."

Asked if he feels like the No. 1 tight end, Downs smiled.

"Yeah," he said. "For the most part I've been getting the One (first-team) reps. That's my goal. Obviously, that's everyone's goal in that room ... to be The Guy. That's what I'm going after right now."

After catching three passes for 34 yards as a Vol freshman in 2011, Downs caught three for 39 yards as a sophomore in 2012. His best game, ironically, was against Jones' Cincinnati team in 2011, when he caught two passes for 32 yards.

Three catches may be Downs' per-game average as a junior this fall. The tight end is a young quarterback's best friend, and Tennessee's quarterbacks are painfully young. Rising junior Justin Worley has three starts to his credit. The other three scholarship QBs have never taken a snap at the college level.

Downs (85) celebrates a touchdown reception against Akron during the 2012 season with Ben Bartholomew.
(Danny Parker/InsideTennessee.com)
Basically, Downs will serve as a security blanket to those young quarterbacks this fall — providing a big target for low-risk passes.

"I think that's definitely important, especially with the new offense and everything," Downs conceded. "We've got to get those short completions. Those are always good."

Tennessee's wide receiver corps is as young and unproven as the quarterback ranks. Last fall's top two wideouts — Justin Hunter (73 catches) and Cordarrelle Patterson (46) — chose the NFL Draft over another year of college. Zach Rogers (32 catches) is out of eligibility. That leaves Pig Howard (13 catches) as Tennessee's most productive returnee at wide receiver. Clearly, Downs needs to be a major factor in the passing game.

"It's important any time, not just with the receiver talent lost," he said. "With this offense especially, the tight end is going to play a big role in the passing game. He's got to be on top of it."

After packing just 230 pounds on his 6-foot-5 frame when he arrived at Tennessee two years ago, Downs played at 254 last fall. He'll be a little heavier than that this season.

"I've gained three or four pounds," he said, "but for the most part I've just reshaped myself. I've trimmed down a little bit and gotten a little stronger."

His sophomore season might have been a lot more productive if he hadn't been hampered by a lingering knee injury. He's hoping to be fully recovered by fall.

"To be honest, it still bothers me from time to time," he said. "It bothers me after practice. I'll be walking around and it will feel a little tight, but once I get out there (on the field) and get going I'm fine."

Downs needs two healthy knees because Tennessee sometimes aligns its tight end at a wide receiver position and challenges him to get open.

"I've done that in the past but not as much as I'm being asked to now," he admitted. "That's been a little transition for me but I'm enjoying it."

Asked how much he lined up at wide receiver during his days at Tennessee High of Bristol, Downs chuckled.

"A little bit but not too much," he said. "We ran a wing-T offense, so I wasn't doing much of that."

See what else Downs had to say about Vol football in the interview below:

Have a look at the Vols at work on Shields-Watkins Field on Saturday morning with the InsideTennessee video below:

Inside Tennessee Top Stories